The story begins, ambitiously, with the rise of the human race on Earth, as a tribe of australopithecines awaken to a black monolith on the African plains, whereupon they learn to use weapons to fight off predators and rivals. In an iconic scene, the triumphant wielder of weapons throws his bone club into the air, and it becomes a spaceship approaching the moon. Doctor Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester), Chairman of the U.S. National Council of Astronautics, is travelling to Clavius base to investigate a black monolith dug up there, which appears to have been buried in the Tycho Crater for four million years. After they travel there in a moon bus, the monolith is struck by sunlight and emits a high-powered radio signal directing them to Jupiter.
Eighteen months later, the spacecraft Discovery One is approaching Jupiter. On board are Doctor David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Doctor Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood), plus three other astronauts in cryo-sleep. The ship is controlled by a HAL 9000 computer (voice of Douglas Rain) with a soothing mellifluous voice and a personable nature. HAL reports the imminent failure of an antenna-controlled device, and it is retrieved by Bowman in extravehicular activity. But there is nothing wrong with it, so they decide to put it back in and let it fail. The twin computer on Earth suggests that HAL has, for the first time ever, made an error. There is talk of disconnecting it. While Poole is on spacewalk, HAL disconnects his oxygen hose and sets him adrift. Bowman retrieves his body, but HAL will not let him back in the ship. At the same time, the other astronauts are killed in their suspended animation tanks.
HAL maintains that disconnecting him would jeopardize the mission. Bowman boards the ship dangerously and begins to disconnect HAL’s circuits. HAL’s plea for mercy is one of the great emotional scenes in movies. When he is disconnected, a pre-recorded message comes on, revealing that the mission’s purpose is to investigate the destination of the monolith’s radio signal sent to Jupiter. The conflict behind the robotic first priority to preserve life and the mission’s top secrecy is what gave HAL problems.
Bowman finds a third, larger monolith in orbit about Jupiter. As he approaches, he is pulled into a vortex of colored light, carried across vast distances in space, observing bizarre cosmological phenomena and strange planetscapes, and appears as older versions of himself preserved like a specimen in a habitat. Another monolith appears before his deathbed and as he reaches for it, he is transformed into a humaniform foetus in an orb of light, looking down at the Earth.
The 1968 film was written by director Stanley Kubrick and author Arthur C. Clarke, based primarily on the latter’s 1951 story, “The Sentinel”. The film is famous for its accurate depiction of spaceflight, combined with its psychedelic and surreal imagery. There is little dialogue, and whole sequences are beautifully accompanied by nothing but classical music. It was nominated for four Academy Awards and Kubrick won for his direction.
Kubrick was determined to avoid the fanciful portrayal of space travel in popular films. He used the planetary illustrations of Chesley Bonestell and others, and Arthur C. Clarke was a constant advisor. Douglas Rain, the Canadian Shakespearean actor who voiced HAL, was the narrator of an important 1960 documentary called “Universe”, by the National Film Board of Canada, and one of the special effects artists for that film also worked on 2001. Graphic Films Corporation, which made films for NASA and the U.S. Air Force, worked on it as well. The fact that Kubrick and Clarke created the film and accompanying novel together allowed them to put explanations in the book and keep the movie more visual and mysterious, without the exposition that often slows down SF films. As you might expect of a collaboration of giants, there was tension and argument between them, but their work is a triumph. Carl Sagan suggested that aliens of such godlike intelligence would not appear human and did not need actors to portray them.
The film was shown in Cinerama, making good use of the vast visual images. Articles were published advising when to eat hash brownies before going to the theater so one would be quite stoned by the “big light-show” near the end. The australopithecines were played by a mime troupe. Kubrick had the out-takes and trims destroyed, so the cuts made would be the only film available. Do you think the movie is long? The original footage was 200 times the length of the movie. The breathing in the spacesuits was by Stanley Kubrick. Apparently, the space-vehicle the tossed bone club turned into was supposed to be an orbiting nuclear device—a short essay on the history of weaponry. The only purposeful joke in the movie is the zero-gravity toilet instructions.
The sun/moon alignment in the beginning is a symbol of the Zoroastrian struggle of light and darkness, reinforced by the music of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Though Kubrick commissioned music, he used recordings by the Vienna Philharmonic from a Decca record, but Decca didn’t want their name cheapened by being associated with a science-fiction movie. Later, they changed their mind. The silverware used in the Discovery was designed by the Danish architect Arne Jacobsen. The seven-foot Space Station Five model was found a few years later in a field and was destroyed by vandals. The techniques used to film the spacecraft flight attendant walking up the rotating ship’s interior was the same techniques used to film Fred Astaire dancing up and walls and ceiling on Royal Wedding (1951) The spacecraft was made by kit-bashing toy-fair purchases.
Kubrick chose the costumes for his actors and picked out the furniture, which has become famous. The models of the ships were realistic, except that the radiator fins of Discovery were removed so people wouldn’t think it had wings. A giant centrifuge was created for the rotating artificial gravity portion of the ship. Allegedly, stuntman Bill Weston almost died working in a spacesuit. There were no computer-created special effects. Reviews were astonishingly diverse, from “The world’s most extraordinary film” to “a monumentally unimaginative movie”. But it is now considered one of the major artistic works of the 20th Century, even if we are reluctant to sit through it again. We tend to concentrate on HAL as a great movie villain, but the story is about the alien as God, helping the fledgling human race to become a cosmic force. And it pretty much created the big budget serious SF film.